Eye on a Decade: How Moonves Transformed a Network

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

CBS, once known for attracting older viewers, has systematically reinvigorated its programming over the past 10 years. Today, it regularly attracts not only the largest viewing audience but also a significant share of 18- to 49-year-olds. TelevisionWeek uses exclusive interviews and scheduling and ratings charts dating back a decade to provide insight into the strategy that drove this significant shift in the broadcasting landscape.

In a decade under the guidance of Chairman Leslie Moonves, CBS has lowered the average age of its viewers and shaken its reputation as the “geezer network,” finishing the 2004-05 television season a hair away from claiming ratings victory among 18- to 49-year-olds.

Mr. Moonves and his coterie of longtime, loyal executives succeeded in transforming CBS incrementally, season by season over the past 10 years, through shrewd program choices and by making decisions to seize such opportunities as shaking up its Thursday night lineup in February 2001 to challenge NBC’s then-dominant, “Friends”-driven schedule.

In fact, when asked to identify the biggest turning point for CBS in terms of its transition from ratings laggard to top competitor, Mr. Moonves, who is also co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, didn’t hesitate. He said the change came in February 2001, when the network took a huge risk by moving both the surprise summer reality hit “Survivor” and the rookie forensics drama “CSI” to Thursdays.

That move, to the night most prized by advertisers for its ability to influence viewers in making purchases over the weekend, set the stage for the first serious challenge to NBC’s decade-long dominance among adults 18 to 49 and CBS’s eventual move to the top of the ratings heap.

At the time, the move wasn’t an obvious slam dunk. “Survivor,” which premiered in May 2000 on Wednesdays, was an unexpected out-of the-box performer in adults 18 to 49. The first cycle of “Survivor” proved so popular its August finale attracted a televised audience of 51.7 million viewers, for the year, second only to the Super Bowl.

By the end of the first summer the network wanted another “Survivor” installment, but the show’s producers said the soonest one would become available was February 2001.

In September 2000 CBS was focused on its new fall schedule and what it considered its highest-profile new series, a remake of the classic 1960s drama “The Fugitive,” which was scheduled for Fridays at 8 p.m. (ET). “The Fugitive” premiered with a strong audience but quickly declined, while its lead-out, “CSI,” which had the modest expectation from the network of just holding its lead-in number, became a breakout ratings hit, beginning one of the most powerful franchises in television history.

With the 2001 Super Bowl as a launchpad, Mr. Moonves said, he knew he had the audience to launch “Survivor’s” second installment, but the question of where to schedule the show soon arose. He called a “summit meeting” of his top executives, including his scheduling chief, Kelly Kahl, who argued that “Survivor” and “CSI” should move to Thursdays. Mr. Kahl is now senior executive VP of programming operations for CBS and UPN.

“He said we would never have an opportunity like this again,” Mr. Moonves said.

Some executives spoke against the move, suggesting that if “Survivor” and “CSI” didn’t work on Thursdays, CBS would also be damaging its newfound ratings success on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Mr. Moonves said there was no question the move was a risk, but he ultimately decided CBS should reschedule its Thursday.

“We were putting ‘Survivor’ against ‘Friends’ at the height of its power,” he said. “It was pretty gutsy.”

The move paid off. For the 2000-01 season CBS saw growth in total viewers, adults 25 to 54 and adults 18 to 49 versus the previous season, while NBC and ABC saw declines. The network kept up its momentum on Thursdays, adding “Without a Trace” at 10 p.m. in September 2002.

At the end of the 2003-04 season, CBS announced it had beaten NBC in total viewers for the night, taking the title away from the network for the first time in 18 years. But CBS reached the ultimate milestone last November, when CBS won Thursdays during the November sweeps in adults 18 to 49, something the network hadn’t accomplished since 1980.

The changes for CBS under Mr. Moonves’ tenure are notable. In his first season on the job, CBS was ranked fourth among the networks in adults 18 to 49, and third in both total viewers and adults 25 to 54. For the just-completed 2004-05 season, CBS was only one-tenth of a ratings point behind Fox for the top spot in adults 18 to 49. CBS also was the dominant leader among the networks in total viewers and adults 25 to 54 for the 2004-05 season.

The “geezer network” tag long infuriated Mr. Moonves and his executive team. He said they “taped to the locker room wall” clippings that dismissed CBS for its older audience. That became an incentive to improve CBS’s performance.

While the improvements clearly have been vast, Mr. Moonves and his team plan to use the strategy of taking bold but calculated gambles to continue to build on the network’s success. CBS is going into the 2005-06 season talking about how its new fare is targeted to bring in a younger audience. The shows the newcomers are replacing have been stalwarts on the network, but each had started to show some wear.

“We took off the air four of our five oldest-skewing shows,” he said, referring to “JAG,” “Judging Amy,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “60 Minutes II.” “We’ve put new shows where they are pretty protected.”

On Mondays CBS is premiering sitcoms on the half-hour after “The King of Queens” and “Two and a Half Men,” while on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. (ET) and Wednesdays at 9 p.m. the network is launching new dramas, including the FBI-based procedural “Criminal Minds.” On Fridays at 8 p.m. CBS is premiering “Ghost Whisperer,” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, and at 9 p.m. the sci-fi drama “Threshold.”

For next season, industry analysts have said they expect another close race for the top spot in the demo, but early bets seem to be with ABC, which is expected to continue to benefit from the success of its breakout dramas and the 2006 Super Bowl.

Mr. Moonves has been quick to point out that CBS was the No. 1 network in 2004-05 if the Super Bowl or even the last game of the seven-game World Series is factored out. Both sports events were broadcast on Fox, the winner for the season.

“Is ABC going to do better? Probably,” Mr. Moonves said of his competitor’s performance next season versus 2004-05

But he said no one should count CBS out.

“The bar isn’t high to improve our numbers,” Mr. Moonves said of CBS’s younger-demo-ratings performance. “I’m convinced we’re going to have growth on every night.”

The transition from struggling network to competitive player didn’t happen overnight, due in part to all the problems Mr. Moonves identified when he took over CBS. Aside from low ratings among advertiser-friendly demos and its older median age, the network was adrift creatively and had no breakout shows to speak of.

“It was a disaster,” Mr. Moonves said. “CBS had lost the ratings and the cachet.”

One of Mr. Moonves’ first acts was to write what became known widely throughout the television industry as the “Friday afternoon memo.”

Mr. Moonves, who came to CBS after a three-year stint as president of Warner Bros. Television, spent his first Friday afternoon on the job walking the halls of CBS Television City in Los Angeles, checking out what his new employees were up to.

“Much to my chagrin, over half the people had left for the day,” Mr. Moonves said. He quickly returned to his new office and wrote what he termed a “rather biting memo” to CBS employees, reminding them the network was in last place among the Big 4 and that at ABC and NBC it was more than likely staffers were still hard at work.

He quickly learned his new staff’s “level of loyalty” whe
n his memo showed up Monday in various media outlets, Mr. Moonves said.

“That was part of the culture,” he said of CBS in 1995. “‘We’re last and we don’t give a damn.'”

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Peter Tortorici, Mr. Moonves wasn’t looking to go for a “shock treatment” approach and fill the schedule with shows that seemed to appeal only to younger viewers.

Calling the 1995-96 season his “‘Central Park West’ year,” Mr. Moonves said a host of the new shows he inherited from the previous development regime, including the nighttime soap “Central Park West,” not only failed to bring in young viewers but also alienated CBS’s older, core viewers.

“You don’t go from ‘Murder, She Wrote’ to the ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ crowd,” he said.

Going With What Works

Instead, Mr. Moonves went with the strategy of building upon CBS’s strength in shows such as “60 Minutes” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” which were older-skewing but still well-made series that brought in audiences.

“From the very beginning Les’s mantra has been ‘We are a broadcaster,'” said Nina Tassler, CBS’s current entertainment president, one of several top executives who previously worked for Mr. Moonves at Warner Bros. Television. “We want all viewers. In that goal, if we get adults 18 to 49, that’s a bonus and that’s a good thing.”

That meant the network was taking a much slower approach to changing its fortunes, first by building on its core audience of older viewers, which helped drive up the network’s total viewer number, then its adults 25 to 54 ratings and finally its performance in adults 18 to 49.

“He didn’t try to correct the ills of CBS all at one time,” Lee Gabler, co-chair of Creative Artists Agency said of Mr. Moonves. “He was patient and did a slow, methodical build.”

Mr. Moonves pointed to the success of NBC’s top-rated “ER,” which he helped shepherd though development and onto the air while at Warner Bros., as a show successful with adults 18 to 49 and performing just as strongly among older audiences.

“‘ER’ also won 49-and-upward as well,” he said. “It wasn’t just a young-skewing show.”

To develop the kind of high-quality shows he felt he needed to turn CBS around, Mr. Moonves said, his first priority was to restore the credibility of the network’s entertainment division.

“There was a feeling, and having been a supplier I knew it, that it was the least inviting place to do work,” he said.

Mr. Moonves moved quickly to change the perception that CBS was not a friendly network for top-level writers, directors and actors, said Rick Rosen, a co-founder of the Endeavor Agency.

“People didn’t want to go to CBS, because there wasn’t a good place to put your show,” he said. “Then once [Mr. Moonves] had a couple of hits, then you wanted to go there. You can’t discount Les when it comes to wooing talent.”

Mr. Moonves, who began his career in television as an actor, let the Hollywood creative community know CBS was serious about attracting talent to the network, Mr. Rosen said.

“Les as a network president, he had some showmanship in him, and not everyone who holds those types of jobs has that kind of swagger,” Mr. Rosen said. “And going along with that, he loves programming. He was part of the creative community and understood both sides of selling and buying.”

The creative turning point for CBS came in September 1996, when the network premiered the sitcoms “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Cosby,” Mr. Moonves said. While “Raymond” built into a Monday night ratings and critical hit over its 10-year run, “Cosby,” which marked Bill Cosby’s return to network comedy after his 1980’s megaseries on NBC, was a relatively modest success that lasted only a few seasons.

For Mr. Moonves, however, getting Mr. Cosby to come to CBS when he had handsome offers from virtually every other network, was an important sign to the entire industry CBS wanted to be in business with top talent.

“It was very symbolic,” Mr. Moonves said.

Knowing what CBS viewers want and going after the best creatives in town has served CBS well and made it easier for program suppliers to bring the right product to the network, said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television.

“I’ve always felt during this last decade CBS, more than any network, seems to be in tune with its audience and is more consistent in providing programming that appeals to its audience,” Mr. Newman said. “That may seem obvious, but when you’re in there pitching to them, they just seem focused on what sort of things appeal to them.”

CBS’s focus was particularly clear after its “Survivor” and “CSI” Thursday move, when the network capitalized on its success in both reality programming and procedural dramas. CBS premiered “The Amazing Race” in September 2001, “Without a Trace” in September 2002, the “CSI” spinoff “CSI: Miami” in September 2002 and “Cold Case” in September 2003.

Ms. Tassler dismissed the notion that CBS relied too much on procedurals or that the genre was maxing out with viewers.

“‘Threshold,’ that for us is outside the box,” she said. “Look at a show like ‘Criminal Minds.’ Obviously, it has a process to the crime-solving, but it’s clearly a suspense thriller for us. Whether or not we have maxed out in the crime genre, they are still continuing to grow, they are still continuing to evolve, and according to our audience they still can’t get enough.”

Hands-on Style

Along with increased ratings success, Mr. Moonves added more responsibilities at the company, particularly after the 1999 merger of CBS and Viacom, which ultimately brought Paramount Television and UPN under his control. Despite his promotion to co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom in June 2004, Mr. Moonves has remained hands-on at CBS, going so far as to sit in on recent casting sessions for the next installment of “The Amazing Race.”

Viacom’s split into two companies, announced last week, gives Mr. Moonves control of the newly named CBS Corp., which includes responsibility for the Showtime cable network, publishing house Simon & Schuster and the Paramount Parks theme-park business.

“I like getting into the fray, but by definition I do delegate more,” Mr. Moonves said. “I probably don’t micromanage as much, but I’m still involved with casting every single series regular.”

Mr. Moonves’ ability to stay involved with CBS while taking on other responsibilities is directly related to the team of executives he has assembled, said Jeff Jacobs, a CAA television agent who covers CBS for the agency.

Besides Ms. Tassler and Mr. Kahl, other top staffers who previously worked with Mr. Moonves at Warner Bros. include David Stapf, the former CBS current programming head who recently was named president of Paramount Network Television; and Ms. Tassler and Mr. Stapf’s boss, Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group.

“There is a shorthand because of the consistency of the management he has put in place,” Mr. Jacobs said. “He can go on and take more corporate responsibilities but still have his imprint because his team knows how to work with him, for him and under him.”

Mr. Moonves’ focus on how to keep CBS successful, even with increased ratings, an executive team he trusts and the resources of a large corporate parent, has remained the same over a decade.

“No matter what the daypart, no matter what programming we do, our goal is quality,” Mr. Moonves said of the network. “We always give everybody their money’s worth. We try always to do our best, and we succeed more than we fail.”

A Decade of Change Chart

CBS Fall Schedules: 1995-2004 Chart 1

CBS Fall Schedules: 1995-2004 Chart 2